Google’s not-so-secret special projects lab, Google X, is housed in an old shopping mall near Mountain View, Calif.
Its rooftop, once a parking lot, is used as a test track for its not-so-secret self-driving car.
On Tuesday, the company gave reporters a rare glimpse of the car in action.
The prototype looked more like a toy than a real car. A wide dashboard with a screen showing what the car could see replaced the steering wheel. Two big buttons to start and stop the car replaced the hand brake. Despite its toy-like appearance, the two-seater was spacious.
It slowed down and stopped for pedestrians and cyclists whom Google had scattered around the parking lot. It even signaled before it turned.
The Los Angeles Times sent me, of all people, to check it out. I was, the editors joked, probably the most qualified person to test-drive a driverless car.
I don’t drive. In fact, I can’t drive without getting arrested.
In Australia, where I’m from, I failed my driving test twice. The first time was because I didn’t look over my shoulder on three occasions while turning left (oh, come on!). The second time was because I exceeded the speed limit in a school zone, ignored road signs and veered into oncoming traffic while trying to change lanes (OK, fair enough).
According to my driving instructor, I just “wasn’t ready.” According to my best friend, I just “sucked.”
None of this fazed me. I thought, when am I ever going to need to drive?
I could count on public transport in Sydney.
Then I moved to California.
It seems as if everyone in California can drive — even if they don’t own a car. So they’re perplexed when they meet someone who can’t.
It even came up in my job interview at The Times.
“So you don’t have a car?” one editor asked.
“Would you consider getting one?”
“Well … I’d have to learn how to drive first.”
“Don’t worry, Google will have self-driving cars soon!”
I’m not sure I believed what I was saying, but it quickly became the line I fell back on any time my lack of driving skills came up in conversation.
Yes, Google was making a self-driving car — no one was going to contest that. But would it ever see the light of day? Would it ever get through the regulatory red tape and be made available to people like me?
Sitting in that interview, sweating, I had no idea.
“God, I hope so,” I thought.
I have considered learning to drive since moving to California. And I have been scared out of it every time.
The first time I remember genuinely being worried was when I sat in a car while the driver turned right on a red light. In Australia, you learn that red means stop and green means go; no exceptions. I was not ready to accept otherwise.
The second time, I was sitting in traffic between LAX and downtown Los Angeles. The car was inching, everyone was honking, and my cab driver rolled his eyes so hard I thought he was going to hurt himself.
“Bad day, eh?” I said.
“It’s like this every day,” he said. “Welcome to L.A.”
The third time, I was frightened away by the costs of owning a car — the car itself, the maintenance, registration, insurance. One time, I heard a friend say he had to pay for his “plates” and get some “slips” from the DMV. I had no idea what he was talking about, but it struck me that car ownership — a supposedly liberating rite of passage — sure was a good way to chain myself to debt.
Researchers say I’m in good company among my peers. Millennials are less likely to get their driver’s license and buy a car than previous generations, according to a study last year by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group and Frontier Group.
I decided I’d use trains and Uber a while longer.
My mother has two criteria when considering a son-in-law: He should be ethnically Chinese, and he should know how to drive.
“You know, Google is making self-driving cars, so pretty soon you’ll have to revise your criteria,” I told her.
“Self-driving cars. Cars that drive themselves. So I won’t need a boyfriend who can drive,” I said.
“So … do you have a Chinese boyfriend?”
Aside from the superficial differences, riding in a self-driving car felt like riding in a Toyota Prius driven by a law-abiding, cautious driver.
A reporter who rode with me mused about how productive he could be if his car drove itself. He could check his emails, do work or even watch a movie during his commute. And if every car was a law-abiding, cautious, self-driving robot, think of all the accidents that could be avoided. Think of all the drunk-driving incidents that could be eliminated.
“Not bad, not bad,” he said as he got out of the car. “How much longer until it launches?”
“It’s still a prototype,” a Google representative said. “So … we’re not talking about that yet.”
For a moment, while riding in the prototype, I was excited. I could envision leaving behind worries of car ownership and thumbing my nose at everyone who’d given me a hard time for not being able to drive. Perhaps I’d whoosh past the Times building and offer editors a ride, or do wheelies outside my family home in Sydney — “Look, Mom! No hands!”
And after exhausting my self-driving car fantasies, I was left with two thoughts: I hope these cars will be ready soon, and I hope they don’t suck.
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